SEPTEMBER 2010 UPDATE: School leaders Keisha Rattray and Roseann Sheehan left after one year at the school. Wells Blanchard is the new principal. The middle school shares a building with Achievement First elementary school.
2009 UPDATE: Achievement First Crown Heights High School opened in September 2009 for the June 2008 graduates of Achievement First Crown Heights Elementary School. School leaders are Keisha Rattray and Roseann Sheehan.
DECEMBER 2005 REVIEW: During their weekly Friday morning meetings, held in the hallway outside their classrooms, the 5th-graders at Achievement First Crown Heights sit upright along the walls, each with a neat pile of books in front of their crossed legs. Most are wearing their school uniforms of heather gray polo shirts and khaki pants, the colors chosen for their lack of affiliation with any of the neighborhood gangs. The rest are wearing white shirts. By the administration's own assessments, 95 percent of these students started the school year performing below grade level, many arriving with poor coping skills academic and behavioral that developed during their years in low-performing schools.
On the Friday that we visited, Principal Orpheus Williams, pacing up and down the hallway like an army sergeant addressing new recruits, delivered a stern lecture on school rules and expectations. "Is this clear?" he asked at one point. "Crystal clear," the students responded in unison. Then two girls, each wearing white shirts, took turns standing before their grade, offering apologies for their poor behavior, the reason they were wearing white shirts. "I want to say thank you to the people who told on me. If they didn't, I would still be in my gray shirt and I don't deserve it," said one of the girls. The other children wearing white shirts weren't ready to apologize. "I hope all of you are wearing gray shirts by the end of December," Williams said.
Then, the tone changed. The students' posture relaxed a bit. Teachers took turns recognizing individuals for exemplary academics or behavior. One student had chosen to redo a project on his own initiative. Another student's classroom behavior had improved significantly. The meeting concluded with laughter and cheering as two teachers kicked off a grade-wide math bee by sparring in a multiplication contest.
Achievement First (AF) is a non-profit organization founded to create a network of urban charter schools that replicate the success of Amistad Academy, a high performing charter school located in New Haven. Connecticut. AF has established two charter schools in central Brooklyn, one in East New York and one in Crown Heights. AF Crown Heights opened in August 2005 with a kindergarten, 1st, and 5th grade, but will eventually expand into a full K-12th grade program. Both the elementary and middle school operate under a single charter (New York State authorization to establish a school), but are overseen by separate administrations: Williams for the middle school and Principal Michael Kerr for the elementary school.
At the core of all Achievement First schools is a formula of intense academics and character development aimed at closing the achievement gap between inner city kids and those from middle class and suburban areas. Speaking with teachers and administrators, we found a sense urgency to their mission. "We can't wait 10 or 12 years for education reforms to take hold," said Kerr. "We'll lose a whole generation of students that way." Students of all ages are called scholars and the hallways are lined with college pennants, a constant reminder of their long-term goala college education. "Many of these students will be the first in their families to attend college," said Kerr. To foster high aspirations, each class is named for its teacher's alma mater Yale, Harvard, University of Pennsylvania and a list of the teachers' and administrators' degrees are prominently displayed at the entrance to their classrooms and offices. Students receive monthly awards for perfect attendance, perfect homework records, and perfect adherence to the behavior code.
In the middle school, the rigor translates into a strict, boot-camp style code of conduct and intensive literacy instruction for three hours in the morning. All students we observed carried a grade-appropriate, if not challenging, book for which they must submit a written review upon completion. In other schools, these books might be considered inappropriate selections for struggling readers, but not at AF Crown Heights. If a child has difficulty reading or performing at a high level, that is considered a cause for more work, not an easier selection.
Beyond literacy, the school offers a traditional assortment of subjects: math, social studies, and science. Students of all ages get music instruction and physical education, and those with special needs receive services on site. Foreign language instruction is planned for the upper grades, though not in the 5th, mainly because of the need to get the students up to standards in English. The school plans to open the high school once the graduating class of 2013 (the current 5th graders) reaches 9th grade.
In general, parents we spoke with were pleased with the school and felt that the AF program was a far better choice than their local public schools. One universal complaint was that there is little down time for the children. The school day is long, 7:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. every day except Friday (and administrators are considering introducing an extended school year as well.) Between extended days and a strict homework policy (homework must be completed on time even if the child is out sick), there is no time for play. There is no playground, and no recess. Children eat lunch quietly in the cafeteria and then go back to work.
The school is housed in a contemporary building that it shares with MS 587 and MS 391. The latter is scheduled to close at the end of the 2005-06 school year, which will free up more space for the charter school. The downside to the location, for now, is the lack of outdoor facilities and the school's current occupation of an interior module of classrooms, many of which do not have windows. There are plans to negotiate access to the athletic fields of a private school across the street, but nothing was definite as of the date of our visit.
After school: Victory Academy, an Achievement First after-school program, provides tutoring and homework help as well activities like debate and orchestra.
Admission: Admission is determined by lottery in April, and is limited to kindergarten and the 5th grade. Priority is given to District 17 residents. A student must turn five by December 1st of the entry year in order to qualify for admission. Applications for other grades will be considered only as space becomes available. Parents may contact the school to request an application or download one from the Achievement First website at www.achievementfirst.org. (Laura Zingmond, December 2005)